Why Ann Arbor’s Hobbs Kessler Could Be The Future Of Distance Running In America

ANN ARBOR – Nick Willis has seen few American runners match Hobbs Kessler’s talent as a teenager.

An Olympic gold medalist and former University of Michigan star runner, Willis has competed against some of the best in United States history during his career, and sees that potential in the senior of the Ann Arbor skyline.

Willis saw Kessler’s talent firsthand after training last year when Kessler ran a 2-mile test with Willis, Mason Ferlic, and others.

With Willis and Ferlic, Kessler ran the 8 km in 8 minutes and 52 seconds and caught the attention of Willis and his fellow runners, who had never seen Kessler run so far.

And at just 18, Willis believes Kessler is already on the right track to be one of the – if not the best – runners the US has ever seen when all is said and done.

“I told a handful of people the following: You can only count with two or three fingers the number of children who have had the skill he has shown as a distance runner and who have the explosive speed,” said Willis Kessler. “I’m talking about the history of American running in high school. And those two or three kids did some pretty amazing things. I’m talking about Jim Ryun, Allen Webb, and Matt Centrowitz. “

For those unfamiliar, Centrowitz became an Olympic champion in the 1,500-meter run, Ryun won an Olympic silver medal, and Webb holds the US record for the mile run.

This is the exclusive company Willis believes Kessler belongs to, and he’s not the only one who sees the potential of the great prep runner.

All tools

Ron Warhurst also knows a thing or two about what makes a runner special.

And in his 45 years as a coach, the legendary former University of Michigan course coach has never seen a more talented endurance runner than Kessler at the time.

“I think he’s the best at his age,” said Warhurst. “At 18, I don’t think any of them had the speed ability that they have.”

Warhurst has spent the last year making Kessler a dominant distance runner and the work behind the scenes has paid off this year.

The Northern Arizona signatory was known in the local community as a solid runner in athletics and cross-country skiing for the past two years, but became a household name in 2021 thanks to two jaw-dropping performances.

In February, Kessler set the national high school record for the fastest indoor mile at 3: 57.66, and a month later broke the record for the best 2-mile time in Michigan history at 8: 39.04.

While these were enlightening accomplishments for Kessler, the stellar runner knew he was capable of those times all along.

“I wouldn’t say I was surprised just because I did so much work before,” said Kessler. “I don’t think (times) are my limit. It’s been two good races, but I think I can definitely run a lot faster.

“I’m pretty happy with how things went, but I also want to improve some of those times and win some bigger races. I don’t feel finished yet, but I am very happy with the way things have gone so far. “

Hobbs Kessler of Ann Arbor Skyline leads his race during the 2020 MHSAA Division 1 Boys Cross Country Finals on Friday, November 6, 2020 at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn. (Mike Mulholland | MLive.com)Mike Mulholland | MLive.com

Things went well for Kessler, to say the least. Considered the best in the country in 1500 and 2 miles, he is the favorite to win his first national title when the track and field championships are held next month.

He was also only three seconds away from qualifying for the 1500 Olympic trials when he finished the race in 3: 40.06 last month at the USATF Grand Prix at the Oregon Relays in Oregon.

Although he failed to qualify on the attempt, Kessler’s time was the third fastest ever run by a high school runner in US history, and he ran the fastest 400 meters of the 14 runners in the event when he finished sixth overall .

Warhurst knows what it takes to qualify for the Olympic trials as he has trained several up to this milestone and said it was only a matter of time before Kessler cracked the 1500 qualifying time of 3: 37.5, before the Olympic trials begin in Oregon in June.

And for Kessler, it won’t stop there, Warhurst said.

“You always project and hope and I’m not afraid to project,” he said. “I think he’ll be one of the top milers in the US for the next two to three years.

“He’s got all the tools right now. You always look at a child to see if they have the physical, mental, and desire skills, and all three.

“He has a really tremendous attitude towards competition. He’s not always that concerned about the times. He wants to hit people, he wants to run fast and hit people at the same time. There is no specific element of time besides the element we impose on ourselves with a qualifying time for the Olympic trials or the standards for Olympic trials and the like. We are there now. “

Turn heads

For Kessler, his meteoric rise took him by surprise, but he’s not ready to deal with it.

“It was pretty weird,” said Kessler. “I was pretty much unknown. Before and after that mile race, my skills didn’t really change, but suddenly I was being considered one of the best high school milers of all time, despite being the same runner before.

“It’s kind of fun and I’m still adapting to it, but I think I’ve done my adaptation pretty well. It’s just weird. “

Willis praised Kessler for his skills at such a young age and can see him go as far as his potential allows.

“There is no one I have known in the history of American high school running who has shown the combination of speed and endurance at such a young age,” said Willis. “I definitely didn’t do that. I just had the speed side of things, not the endurance.

“He has all the tools to do something special. On the other hand, it is a question of whether you can put these tools together, train for a handful of years, and have the psyche and maturity to deal with all of the pressures and motivations that come with being a disciplined athlete. “

Dealing with expectations

Division 1 boys cross country

Hobbs Kessler of Ann Arbor Skyline competes during the Division 1 boys race at the MHSAA Cross Country Championships at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn on Saturday, November 2, 2019.
Jenna Kieser

Kessler does not take this praise from Willis lightly.

“It’s definitely exciting,” said Kessler. “My brain didn’t really process it. I can only think of this season. I don’t know what my trajectory will be so I’m just focusing on everyday life for now and hopefully that adds up to being where Nick ended up. But right now I just take it day by day. “

However, the high expectations did not put Kessler under additional pressure.

He hasn’t lost sight of the present and says he’s not worried about the future right now. He finished second in the state in the Cross Country State Finals last fall, which he is still disappointed with.

With the track and field finals being his last chance to win a state high school championship, Kessler plans to put all of his efforts into that goal before looking forward.

“I’m ahead of what a lot of people who were great runners were in high school, but everyone also develops differently,” Kessler said. “I haven’t really thought about it. I’m just trying to finish this season and then I worry about the next season and the next and I hope I can keep building. “

In progress

Warhurst said Kessler’s progress was aided by training with professional runners of Willis’ stature, giving the young star an edge over runners his age.

“He’s got the ability to run and train so much with Nick and Mason and Mitch (Black),” he said. “At first it was like he was a little buddy. Here comes this little kid, a tall puppy, barking on their heels. And now he has risen to the fact that he can compete with the best in this country and professionally.

“Now he’s one of her colleagues. He’s right about them, he has the mentality they have and that is the key to his success.

“It’s natural for him now to believe that he can step on the line and run against guys who ran a 3:52 or 3:53 mile when he didn’t. He knows he’s in the stadium with them, and that’s a mental advantage for a young child over his competition. “

Despite the success he’s achieved in a short space of time, Kessler still has time to reach the heights that many expect him to one day be.

“It’s going to be a nice, comfortable development,” said Warhurst. “There’s no rush to get him anywhere other than just let him be himself, be a kid and grow into it.

“He loves to compete. That’s 95% percent of it. “

Time will tell where Kessler ends up. If he is able to continue his current projection, Willis sees no upper limit to his potential.

“He has all the tools to go as far as his body allows,” said Willis. “But from a physical point of view, there are no limits to its ceiling. Will he be able to do that? It’s about good luck, but he’s just as physically gifted as anyone I’ve ever seen or heard in America. “

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